Former President Donald Trump has managed the extraordinary feat of utterly transforming the GOP in his own image while simultaneously losing his personal grip on the party.
We saw hints of this last week in Pennsylvania's senate and gubernatorial primaries, but it's even clearer in this week's Republican primaries in Georgia. GOP voters expect candidates to follow Trump's example in taking the fight to Democrats, especially on cultural issues, and they tell pollsters they believe the 2020 election was stolen from Trump. But they aren't consistently following Trump's lead in deciding which candidates to support, especially when Trump's endorsement seems to be motivated by revenge against officials for failing to overturn the results of the 2020 vote.
The voters want Republicans to be Trumpy — but they don't seem overly influenced by the electoral preferences of the man himself.
This was illustrated quite clearly in Pennsylvania. The leading candidates, celebrity physician Mehmet Oz and hedge-fund millionaire and former Bush administration official David McCormick, both worked to portray themselves as loyal Trump-style Republicans. But Trump endorsed Oz — only to have McCormick come so close to winning that a statewide recount is necessary.
So much for Trump's golden touch.
In the state's race for governor, Trump's choice (Doug Mastriano) did far better, prevailing by a whopping 23 points. Mastriano certainly is among the most extreme election-fraud conspiracists running for office this year, but he was already leading by more than 10 points when Trump endorsed him on the final weekend before the vote — showing again that Trump has done a lot to shape the priorities and temperament of candidates while falling short of serving as a true kingmaker for those looking to get elected.
This pattern could well be repeated and reinforced in Tuesday's primaries in Georgia.
In the race for governor, incumbent Brian Kemp has proven himself a rival to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) for aggressively pursuing a Trumpy agenda at the state level, including the tightening of election laws and procedures. Yet Trump strongly endorsed a primary challenge by David Perdue solely as an act of revenge against Kemp for failing to overturn the results of the 2020 election. The result? Kemp leads Perdue by 20 points. If the outcome tracks with the polls, it will hand Trump a humiliating defeat.
But it might not be the only one on Tuesday. Trump also supported a vengeful primary challenge to incumbent Georgia secretary of state Brad Raffensberger by Rep. Jody Hice. That's because Raffensberger, too, refused to renounce the duties of his office by bowing to Trump's bullying demand that he toss out election results showing that the president lost the state to Joe Biden fair and square.
As with Kemp, Raffensberger is eagerly courting Trump supporters, so this isn't a case of the candidate defying the former president more broadly. He's eager to demonstrate that he's a loyal member of the Trumpy team. He merely refused to lie and cheat to give Trump a victory in the state that he didn't rightfully earn.
Will that doom Raffensberger? The two candidates are currently neck and neck in the polls, so we won't have a clear answer until after the votes are counted.
Another way to put it is that both Kemp and Raffensberger are working hard to show that they are fully on board with the changes Trump has wrought in the Republican Party, with just one exception: neither is willing to countenance the reversal of a democratic election just because the head of the party demands it. But of course, Trump continues to demand exactly that. The question is whether there are sufficient numbers of voters to enforce the edict. If not, that will leave Trump looking personally diminished in power.
But what about Herschel Walker's race for the senate against incumbent Democrat Raphael Warnock? Trump encouraged the former NFL running back to move to Georgia from Texas for the contest, and Walker is leading in the primary polls by a mammoth 55 points. Does this demonstrate that Trump still has the magic touch?
Maybe — though the claim would be more convincing if Walker wasn't already a sports superstar, and if he had a track record of supporting distinctively Trumpian political positions. (Walker's campaign website highlights several issues that just about any conservative Republican in 2022 would favor.) Trump's endorsement certainly hasn't hurt him, and it may have convinced certain skeptical voters to fall in behind the idea of him becoming the party's nominee, though so it's far hard to see what makes Walker a Trumpian candidate at all, beyond his celebrity and appearances on Trump's Celebrity Apprentice reality TV show.
Donald Trump's achievement from 2016 through 2020 was remarkable. He launched a successful hostile takeover bid of one of America's two major parties, and it was successful. Today the Republican Party remains thoroughly his when it comes to policy priorities and emphasis, as well as in its highly combative approach to partisanship.
Trump remade the GOP in his own image — but its voters look increasingly willing to declare their independence from the man himself.